Spectacular Letdown: MGMT, 'Congratulations'

April 11, 2010

MGMT IS THE is the kind of band that inspires strong opinions from music fans. To many younger listeners, it’s a group of fun-loving, neo-psychedelic whiz kids with great party songs. For the grouchier types, MGMT represent a frustrating case of style over substance, a group whose ideas don’t often match up with the hype surrounding the band and its flashy, quasi-mystical aesthetic.

But like fellow New Yorkers Vampire Weekend, MGMT doesn’t seem too concerned with critical acclaim or acceptance inside the persnickety indie sphere. As co-frontman Ben Goldwasser recently put it, “If the fabled Brooklyn music scene does exist, we’re definitely not part of it. Most of those bands are never going to be discovered by anyone because they’re too insular and weird.”


Even though MGMT is ostensibly an indie band, its ambitions go beyond that world — the group is making pop music to reach as many people as possible, and that’s a good thing. (Frankly more indie groups should do the same.)

With 2007′s “Oracular Spectacular,” MGMT was able to hook listeners with three very good singles, “Kids,” “Time to Pretend” and “Electric Feel.” Simple electro-pop songs with a psychedelic bent, they were buoyant and hopeful, easy to love and incredibly catchy.

But despite those standout singles, the rest of “Oracular Spectacular” wasn’t particularly strong — and neither is its follow-up, “Congratulations.” The album turns out to be an odd one, too. Noticeably devoid of hooks, it’s a curious stylistic left turn that doesn’t often play to the band’s strengths.

Rather than playing up MGMT’s pop side, “Congratulations” highlights the band’s more experimental tendencies. MGMT has always been a psychedelic-pop act at its core (the closest contemporary comparisons being the Flaming Lips or Of Montreal), but here the band tries to swirl too many disparate elements into its songs and wind up with a jumble of ideas and no clear direction. There are traces of prog-rock, glam and dance music in songs such as “Someone’s Missing,” but it seems like the band wants to highlight all these sounds at once — and MGMT does so at the expense of natural rhythm and melody. Many of the tracks just sort of bleed together.

“Congratulations” is far from an objectionable record — it’s pleasant to have on and even delightfully kooky at times (the tongue-in-cheek “Brian Eno,” for instance) but nothing really sticks out as a clear highlight. For a band that showed a melodic knack before, there’s no “Kids” or “Time to Pretend” here, nothing that accessible or hooky. (Relatively straightforward closer “Congratulations” comes closest.) Mostly it sounds like a watered-down reimagining of ’70s art-rock records by Sparks and Roxy Music, but without the finesse that made those bands’ albums great.

It’s a strange turn for MGMT, and it will be interesting to see how its fanbase and the wider public takes to the record. Surely some will embrace it, but if MGMT wants to reach the larger audience it’s aiming for, the band will have to do better than this.

Written by Express contributor Joe Colly
Photo courtesy Columbia Records

» Stream the full album here.

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Betsy Lowther · April 8, 2010